The reality and difficulties of breastfeeding: What the midwives don’t tell you

breastfeedingToday I want to talk about breastfeeding: the good the bad and the ugly.  The whole truth.  Before I start you should know that I am a realistic and honest mum.  My friends would say I am a bit too honest at times.  I just gave my best friend a bottle of lactulose for her baby shower gift and told her to take a lot of it as there is nothing more terrifying than having a poo straight after giving birth!  She has just texted me to say “thank you for the best present I have ever had.  That poo juice is the most amazing stuff!”  I think it is important to let new mum’s know about the things that might make their life a bit easier after having a baby.  They know all the good bits, but no one seems to tell them the reality of birth, breastfeeding and what lies ahead!

Breastfeeding is everywhere at the moment.  I can’t log on to the internet without seeing an artistic picture of a naked mother with a gorgeous baby latched onto one breast and her toddler latched onto the other.   A couple of weeks ago I even read an article about a mother who breastfed her toddler and her friends toddler too.  To clarify, because I can hear the enraged screams of breastfeeding mothers everywhere, I did breastfeed both of my children!  I am all for breastfeeding and I am all for bottle feeding.  I am all for what is right for each individual mother and baby.

The problem I have with all of these recent posts about breastfeeding is that they think they are empowering mothers and helping them to breastfeed.  What they are actually doing is alienating those mothers that find breastfeeding difficult.  They don’t seem to take into consideration the multitude of factors that can affect breastfeeding.  The women that post these articles about how wonderful it is to breastfeed are often second or third time mums who have been through it before and know what to expect.  You very rarely find a first time mum of a 1 week old baby who will write an article about the joys of breastfeeding and post a picture of themselves peacefully enjoying a serene moment with their baby latched onto to their breast.

What experienced mothers forget is what breastfeeding is like for a new mother.  Maybe they don’t want to mention it because they think it will scare women and put them off breastfeeding.  In my humble opinion I think giving women all of the facts, the good the bad and the ugly of breastfeeding is arming them with the wealth of knowledge they can draw on in every eventuality.  When new and inexperienced mums read about how wonderful and easy they are meant to find feeding their tiny baby it will make them feel like failures if they are struggling with breastfeeding.  Mothers that are forced to make the decision to move on to bottle feeding are being made to feel inferior when they are plagued with pictures of women who can stand on their heads in a yoga pose while their toddler latches on for a quick snack.  This is not the reality of breastfeeding and it is of no help at all to new hormonal mothers.

What we should be telling first time mums is the truth.  Your first time breastfeeding stories.  So here’s my breastfeeding story, I hope it helps and makes you realise you aren’t alone if you find breastfeeding difficult.  I would very much encourage anyone else out there to share their truthful breastfeeding stories too.

I had a great birth with my first daughter, she was born in a birthing pool and when the nurse handed her to me she opened her mouth really wide and latched on perfectly straight away.   The midwives all oohhed and aahhed about how wonderful it was and what a natural I was, and then they left me to it.  At which point it all went down hill.  I never felt any physical pain when breastfeeding with my first daughter, however the emotional pain I felt was torture.  When midwives tell you about breastfeeding, they tell you that it will make you feel wonderful and help you bond with your baby.  Even on the babycentre website they gush:  “whenever you nurse him, you’re filled with head-over-heels devotion. What’s up with that? We have one word for you – oxytocin.  This powerful hormone is responsible for breast milk “letting down,” or moving to the front of the breasts. And it also happens to be the same chemical released in the brain when a person falls in love, says Laura Viehmann, assistant professor of pediatrics at Brown University and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatricians.  (http://www.babycenter.com/0_5-things-you-didnt-know-about-breastfeeding_10357141.bc)

However what they don’t ever mention is that some women don’t feel this.  In fact they get the opposite reaction.  When I breastfed my daughter instead of feeling intense joy and “devotion” I literally felt suicidal.  In the first minute of breastfeeding I felt totally and utterly worthless, like the most pointless person on earth.  The depression that would swoop over and engulf me was so awful I couldn’t tell anyone about it in case it meant I was a bad mother.  I carried on breastfeeding, however I wasn’t enjoying it and my daughter didn’t seem to enjoy it either.  Where my friends would sit happily with a calm baby latched on to them, my daughter would latch on and off crying lots and leaving my breast exposed in public, shooting milk across tables at all angles!  I tried expressing and got a lot of milk out but it gave me terrible back ache and again made me so depressed.   I must stress that this feeling of depression only lasted about a minute on each feed and after that I felt ok, but I was so upset by the initial feeling that I never enjoyed breastfeeding.  After eight weeks I came to the realisation that breastfeeding just wan’t for me, however giving up was awful.  I truly felt like I had failed.  I sat and sobbed over my daughter as she had what I knew would be her last feed from me.  My husband told me over and over that I wasn’t a bad mother, but there was so much pressure from midwives and social media to keep at it, that I couldn’t stop feeling like a failure.

A year later my friend had a baby and she told me she wasn’t enjoying breastfeeding either.  We talked about how it made us feel and she said she felt the same as me.  So I went and looked the symptoms up and I found that we weren’t alone and that it is an actual chemical imbalance.  It is called DYSPHORIC MILK EJECTION REFLEX or D-MER for short.  Rather than Oxytocin causing euphoria, a hormone called Dopamine causes dysphoria (feelings of depression) for some women.  Dopamine helps control the secretion of prolactin which is what makes the milk.  In order for prolactin levels to rise and more milk to be produced, dopamine levels must lower briefly.  Once prolactin has begun to rise the dopamine stabilises.  Dopamine is well known for affecting moods and in a mother with D-MER dopamine is behaving somehow inappropriately in its drop.  It is in this drop that a mother feels her dysphoria.  As soon as the dopamine levels stabilise the dysphoria disappears.  (http://www.d-mer.org/Home_Page.html)

D-MER jpeg

I was so relieved to find that there was an actual reason for the feelings I had when I was feeding my first daughter.  I finally realised that I hadn’t been bad at breastfeeding, I had a reaction to a chemical imbalance.  I was also not alone.  It turns out that thousands of women suffer from the same problem, however hardly any of us admit to it.  How can you admit to your health visitor or your family that you feel like throwing your baby across the room every time you feed them?  They would take your baby away and lock you up.

What I can’t understand is that this is a known thing and yet health visitors and midwives are either unaware of it or don’t feel that it’s important to warn new mothers about it.  There’s plenty of information given about postnatal depression, but nothing about D-MER.  When I was pregnant with my second daughter I told my midwife about my experience and she admitted she had never heard of D-MER.  She asked if she could pass the information on to her team and I of course agreed.  I said they should all look into it and inform new mothers that they might feel depressed when feeding their child and that if they did it was totally normal and that they should ask for help.  Every time I meet a midwife or health visitor I ask them if they’ve heard of D-MER and I’ve never met one that has said yes.   So I’m telling you all now if you don’t feel all warm and fuzzy when you feed your baby it is not your fault.  Don’t suffer in silence.  Don’t look at all of the posts by mum’s who feel euphoria when feeding their child and think you must be a bad mum.  You are a wonderful mum, it is just your hormones playing up.

Once I knew what to expect, when I had my second child I was ready for it.  I would brace myself every time she latched on and try to let the depression just slide off me, knowing it would end shortly.  Doing this meant that I was able to breastfeed her for eight months instead of eight weeks.  I was confident that I was doing everything right, I just needed to beat my hormones.

With my second daughter I had a different issue and that was pain.  She had a tongue tie.  Her tongue looked like a snakes it was so forked.

tongue tie
Image of a tongue tie. This is not my daughter.

At five days old we had it cut and that helped a bit, however every time she latched on it was like slicing razor blades across my nipples.  The pain was so intense I could hardly bare to let her latch on.  I would sit with tears streaming down my face as she fed just praying she would feed quickly.  Luckily one of my NCT friends had experienced the same thing and told me it would stop after two weeks, and she was right.  One day it just didn’t hurt anymore.  If she hadn’t told me that I would have given up.  Feeding a baby up to eight times a day with nipples that sore was unbearable and any sane person wouldn’t be blamed for giving up.  However I would say to any new mum experiencing pain like that,  push on through, grit your teeth, use lots of nipple cream and allow yourself to cry.  Your nipples will get used to it and in a few weeks you wont feel the pain at all.

I almost wish my husband had taken a picture of me crying my eyes out whilst breastfeeding.  Just so I could put it on here and let all new mum’s out there know that breastfeeding is not always a joy and if you find it hard, depressing and painful you are not alone and it is ok to say “this is not for me.”  Too many of my friends have suffered from agonizing guilt when deciding to give up breastfeeding and this needs to be stopped.

At the end of the day you don’t go through life asking your colleagues and friends if they were breast or bottle fed do you?  In the whole big scheme of things it really doesn’t matter.  Both of my girls had a bit of both and they are happy, healthy, giggly girls.  I was fed both and I’m alive to tell this tale.  Let’s stop making each other feel guilty about their choices.

Making everyone think that something is perfect when often it isn’t, is not empowerment.  Knowledge is empowerment.  The more women who know about D-MER (and about other difficulties they may face when breastfeeding) the better.   It will stop thousands of women from suffering alone like I did.  If you are a midwife or a health visitor please give women the whole truth about breastfeeding, the good the bad and the ugly.

Please click on the links below and SHARE this as much as possible as it may really help someone you know who is suffering in silence.

Thank you

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